As some of you know, I have a friend who does relief work overseas–in places like Sudan, and the Congo, and Cambodia. One of the most common reactions I hear from people who I tell what she does is, essentially, “That’s amazing–I could never do that.” (I think she finds such praise excessive, but that’s a separate topic.)

I’ve been thinking about this today, not for the first time. I admire the work my friend does tremendously, but more and more I’m uncomfortable with the second part of the above statement–the “I could never do that” part. I think it may be not so much a statement of admiration for the person being spoken about, as a way of letting oneself off the hook. I don’t mean to suggest we all ought to all drop our current vocations and take up new careers. But the truth is, most of us could do that, and any number of other things as well. We choose not to. We may choose not to for very good reasons. But we’re still making a choice. And the fact that we’re making a choice–rather than being forced off of certain paths by powers beyond our control–is important.

Because when we assume that only certain special or gifted people can do the work we feel most needs doing, we abdicate our own responsibility to act in the world. We assume that the people who do worthy things are somehow fundamentally different than us, and that we don’t have to even consider doing the sort of work they are.

More and more, when I look at various forms of social and political and humanitarian activism, I try not to say, “I could never do that.” I try to say, “I could do that, but I’m not.” And then I ask myself, “Why?”

And here’s the thing: I don’t ask myself “Why?” to make myself feel guilty. I ask myself “Why?” to see whether I have an answer.

And right now, I do. That answer is essentially that I’ve decided to do other things in the world, primarily to tell stories in and about it. This is a thing that matters too, and a thing I seem to have some ability at, and a thing I take joy in doing. There are many ways to act in the world, and I’ve chosen to put much of my time and energy into this one, which means I don’t also have the time and energy to do many of the others. I like to think this is an honest answer, rather than a bit of self-justification. At the very least though, it’s more honest than saying, “Well, it’s out of my hands. I had no choice. I could never have done that.”

And if I ever reach a point in life where I don’t have an answer I can live with, then it will be time for me to do some serious thinking. Not about the reasons I “can’t” do the thing I’m thinking about, but about whether I want or need to be doing it.

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